Unlearning the Art of Getting Lost


Vladislavić is one of the great writers of the fragment. The two works preceding Double Negative, The Exploded View (2004) and Portrait with Keys (2006), both attest to this. The Exploded View is a novel in four parts, one for each of four protagonists—a statistician gathering census data, a civil engineer working on post-apartheid housing developments, a market-savvy artist (who makes a delightful return in Double Negative), and an erector of billboards. All of them have a privileged perspective on life and society in Vladislavić’s home city, Johannesburg. Vladislavić calls the The Exploded View a novel, and though the juries of literary prizes disagree with him, I think this is a claim to be taken seriously. A case could be made that the novel’s divided form is justified by its object: Johannesburg, which is, as cliché would have it, the “divided” city. But Vladislavić’s tightly knit prose belies this diagnosis. Sensitive readers are struck by the uncanny repetitions, haunting resonances, and resounding echoes across the novel’s parts: by the work’s and the city’s unity, not their partition. Portrait with Keys is a collection of 138 short pieces about the city, which can be read in order, at random, or according to one of the suggested “itineraries” included with a map at the back of the book. This book is classified as “non-fiction,” and this time the juries of literary prizes do agree. The “portrait” in 138 brush-strokes has two subjects: the city and the artist himself. Both are rendered in imbricated, mutually enriching fragments, forming a nuanced whole. Neither rendering would be out of place in the very best fiction.

more from Jan Steyn at The Quarterly Conversation here.